State officials see no roadblocks yet as they work to complete by Jan. 1, 2011, a $20.1 million purchase of 233 miles of northern Maine freight rail tracks deemed vital to the state’s economy, they said Monday.
“It is going well. All of these documents are still coming together, but right now we don’t see any hurdles that will hold things up,” said Nate Moulton, director of the Maine Department of Transportation’s railroad program.
Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway sought federal approval in February to abandon the tracks, most of which run from Madawaska to Millinocket, by summer, citing losses of $4 million to $5 million annually. That deadline has been extended several times.
Stakeholders in the railroad service, such as 22 major Maine manufacturers, have said it would be disastrous to the state’s economy if the tracks were lost. The purchase preserves as many as 1,722 jobs, Aroostook County economic development officials said.
MM&A officials said the rail service did not want to abandon the lines but had no choice, given its losses. While still functional, the tracks had fallen into disrepair, with long stretches where safety concerns prohibited train speeds of more than 10 mph.
MM&A and state officials are writing a purchase sale agreement, reviewing track usage agreements and, per standard procedure, conducting an environmental study on the land to be purchased to determine whether any contaminants are on the property, Moulton said.
As part of taking over the railroad lines, DOT officials expect to name a new operator to run rail traffic over the lines in late December and start rail repair work as soon as winter weather recedes, Moulton said.
About 225 miles of the worst sections of track will be repaired or replaced as part of the deal. An estimate of construction costs only set that price at $10.5 million, not counting another $827,000 to install rail anchors between Millinocket and Squa Pan, according to a rehabilitation plan estimate.
That includes 158.5 miles of track work on the Madawaska line for $6.9 million; 17 miles near Houlton for $591,203; 25.3 miles near Presque Isle for $830,927; 9.4 miles near Fort Fairfield on the Easton-bound line only for $324,173; and 14.7 miles of track near Limestone on the Caribou line, for $489,000, the plan states.
The 233 miles represents the largest single block of track purchased by DOT in its history, Moulton said. It will join 320 miles of active and dormant track spread across the state, including bits around Ellsworth, Brewer, Calais and Rockland.
The state purchases unused tracks to preserve them for future economic developments that might require them, often leasing them to Maine businesses that need them — not to make money, Moulton said, but to encourage economic development and help improve Maine’s business climate.
“What road, bridge or airport project makes money? We invest millions of dollars in transportation infrastructure every year,” Moulton said. “When we pave the interstate, we don’t look at it as an opportunity to make money. It is to provide transportation alternatives for the people and businesses of Maine.”